I'm really excited about an author talk on our agenda at the RESULTS International Conference this year. Pamela Covington, author of "A Day at the Fare: One Woman's Welfare Passage" told an incredibly compelling story from her book. Her book was on my summer reading list, and I just completed it a few weeks ago. I truly appreciated it and highly recommend this easy-to-read, relatable narrative. It perfectly illustrates two things a lot of Americans struggle to understand: why it's so difficult for a woman with children to leave a loving relationship that has turned dangerous, and how difficult it is to navigate (and leave!) the U.S. system of financial assistance for women who need help NOW.
Here are a few things that jumped out at me about her journey in poverty...
|Pamela Covington telling stories|
In the beginning of the book, Covington relates the harrowing time when she had to flee her home for the safety of her boy, her baby, and herself with only $900 in her pocket. She had to pack and prepare for her departure in secret, then try to leave quickly. In her haste to depart before her partner came home, she packed all her clothes and those of the kids first, so they ended up in the very bottom of a packed-to-the-gills car. Certainly, she wasn't thinking at the time that it would take days to find a safe place for them to land long enough to even unload to the point of finding clean clothes! Small mistakes balloon in size when you don't have money.
Common Mom Problems Can Escalate to Crises
In another instance, she related a story about how she simply forgot to take her diaper bag with her on a winter day. This is where it got super-relatable to me as I remember feeling helpless one afternoon far from home in downtown, wintery Chicago when I had a baby with me for my first outing alone with her...and I forgot to bring the diaper bag. I totally see how this unfortunate thing can happen. How did I get out of it? I scrounged around in the car to find one stray diaper and just sucked up the cost to buy what I needed for the afternoon. But for a mom no spare money in her pocket and using public transportation on an important errand to access more financial resources for the whole family...there's no backup plan. Her story of feeling desperate at the bus stop while her baby's full diaper came loose and fell right out of his pants hit me right in the heart. Especially when NO ONE at the stop offered to help her in any way.
Attitudes of Aid Providers Make a Huge Difference
Throughout her story, Covington encounters many people whose job it is to help her through the system of assistance. An Urban League employee helping her find her first apartment, a YMCA staffer, welfare case workers...they all have parts to play in the maze of assistance, but how they relate to people they serve can uplift a person with dignity or eat away at a person's precious self-confidence. The descriptions of how Covington felt as she interacted with each person showed me a new perspective on the power of kindness offered in the right place at the right time. I have recommended this book to several clergy leaders. It can help congregations think about meaningful ways to provide a quiet intervention of kindness when it's most needed by someone in a tough situation.
Covington herself doesn't use the phrase "The rent eats first" in the book, but her story certainly contains a real-life illustration of what the phrase means. It is so vitally important to have a safe place to rest, clean up, store valuables, and care for children, that rent must come before any other considerations...even food. Unfortunately, that means that unless you qualify for housing assistance (which can take months to receive after application), a huge percentage of any money you are able to get goes straight to the rent. Today, low-income American renters pay an average of 70% of their income to housing, leaving a small piece of the pie for all food, heat, electricity, diapers, sanitary supplies...things many Americans can't even imagine going without for more than a week.
What Can We Do??
This last matter of rent is becoming more and more of a crisis for the United States. According to Harvard researchers, rents have risen by 61% since 1960, but renters' median earnings have gone up only 5%. This week, RESULTS volunteers will go to Capitol Hill with housing on their minds. We'll be asking for members of Congress to consider a "Renter's Tax Credit" for low- and moderate-income renters. A renters' credit would limit rent for low-income families to 30% of their income and provide a tax credit for the balance above that to local fair market value.
If YOU would like to help us take action on the American Housing crisis, call your members of Congress on Tuesday, July 16 and leave them your version of this message: "We subsidize housing via our tax code, but by subsidizing wealthier homeowners rather than renters. Will you support renters' credit proposals to help low-income Americans?"